Big Screen Big Deals

While the majority of documentaries find their home on the small screen, sometimes there's no substitute for a live audience. A festival run gives a producer or prospective distributor a peek into what viewers think - but where should you start?
January 1, 2001

While the list of prospective film fests might seem daunting, most industry insiders pick only three as the primary marketplaces for theatrical docs: the Sundance Film Festival, the Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin (the Berlinale), and the Toronto International Film Festival – three of the biggest film festivals in the world. While there are many other events that can have instrumental value for docs, none are as consistently effective at propelling a film into theaters as these three.

Veteran documentary sales agent Jan Rofekamp, founder of Montreal-based international distribution company Films Transit, works with producers to assess a film’s potential, launch it accordingly, and guide it along until it has sold every possible right, on every platform, in every territory around the world. For him, launching a doc at the right festivals is the first step toward that goal. ‘I try to find a European launch and a North American launch,’ he explains. ‘Berlin and Amsterdam are two ideal places for a European launch. The ideal North American launch is between Sundance, Toronto and Hot Docs . . . But, if I think a film has theatrical potential, then Toronto and Berlin are the two that I will launch it from because they both have theatrical clients.’

These theatrical clients (or ‘all media distributors’ – meaning they buy all rights: theatrical, TV and home video) range from the ‘mini-majors,’ such as Lions Gate, Fine Line and Sony Pictures Classics, which pick up a rare few docs each year, to smaller, niche-oriented distribs, like L.A.’s Seventh Art Releasing, New York’s Zeitgeist Films and Artistic License Films, and Strand Releasing in Santa Monica. While reps from these companies travel to other festivals around the world, one is unlikely to find such a large concentration of them anywhere else.

There are few similarities between the smaller distribs. They can differ in terms of their editorial focus (whether it be social issues, art-house or gay/lesbian themed, for example) or the number of docs they distribute each year. New York’s Winstar TV & Video, for example, generally picks up one doc per year to distribute theatrically, in addition to a number of fiction titles. Others, like Seventh Art, concentrate most of their efforts on docs and will acquire about ten non-fiction titles every year. Distribs can also differ in terms of which of the three big festivals are most important to their business – both for acquiring new titles and for launching films already acquired.

Park City

‘Sundance is definitely the most important film festival for us – both for acquisition and to present films if they’re accepted,’ says Udy Epstein, co-founder and principal of Seventh Art Releasing. ‘We’ve felt from the very first year we started looking into documentary, and increasingly every year since, that the selection and quality of films at Sundance is amazing.’

Set in the mountain town of Park City, U.S., each January, the Sundance Film Festival is the first large-scale event on the calendar. An important feature at Sundance for non-fiction films is House of Docs, which enters its sophomore year at the 2001 festival. House of Docs has expanded from a five-day program to run the duration of the festival. Planned activities include round table discussions on pertinent doc issues, one-on-one meetings between filmmakers and resource advisors, a works-in-progress screening room for invited projects, and ‘Reel Gem and Coffee’ screenings in which specially selected docs are presented each morning.

Festival co-director Nicole Guillemet spearheaded the program in an effort to help documentary filmmakers stand out in the increasingly frenzied, fiction-driven independent film marketplace. ‘In the 16 years I’ve been associated with the festival, I’ve seen the isolation of the documentary filmmakers grow more and more … They started moving into the shadows, backing out of the limelight. So, I started House of Docs.’

Held in a room separate, but not isolated, from festival activity, House of Docs allows filmmakers, distributors, broadcasters and the like to participate in discussions and panels, as well as interact informally with each other. ‘In order to start anything, you need to create a community,’ explains Guillemet, ‘and to start a community at the festival meant creating this House of Docs. It was really to nurture filmmakers at the festival, but also to encourage them to meet each other, to meet the press, to meet anyone who is interested in documentary filmmaking and also have a place to work. It is not just a place to have coffee and talk, although that is important too.’

For a distributor like Winstar, House of Docs is a welcome addition to the festival.’It’s great because it gives you immediate access to the filmmakers,’ says Krysanne Katsoolis, Winstar’s senior VP of coproductions and acquisitions. ‘You might not be interested in their current project, but there might be something you can think of down the line. It’s really an organized communication with the filmmakers.’

In fact, says Katsoolis, it’s good to have a place for distribs to talk to filmmakers about their work in progress because it opens up coproduction opportunities, and gives distribs a chance to advise filmmakers on how they can make a successful film – before it’s too late and the film is finished. ‘Work in progress has become much more important for us,’ she says, ‘First of all, you can talk to filmmakers and say, ‘Stop here. Don’t bother putting any more money into it,’ or ‘Put more money into it, but go this way because this is where you’re going to get some return out of it.”

Screening an average of 160 short and feature-length films overall, the festival has a healthy non-fiction component that consists mainly of American docs, and a smaller number of international titles. In 2000, there were 16 American films in the Documentary Competition, three international docs in the World Cinema section, and several other docs scattered throughout the fest’s remaining categories.

It should be noted that a number of films at Sundance arrive with distribution and/or broadcast arrangements already lined up, and screen at the festival to gain press attention before rolling out commercially. Broadcasters such as PBS and HBO are well known for showcasing their docs at Sundance. Notorious televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker-Messner got almost as much press for appearing at last year’s festival to promote The Eyes of Tammy Faye (HBO/Cinemax, directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato), as she did in the wake of the Jim Bakker sex scandal.

Despite competition from the big players, Seventh Art Releasing’s Epstein believes there are still great opportunities at Sundance for smaller companies. ‘We love documentaries and we see as many as we can. Not all the films there are available to us for commercial consideration, and yet there are always a few we like that fit our model. I’d say that every year we end up getting involved somehow with a few Sundance films.’ Such was the case for The Long Way Home (directed by Mark Jonathan Harris), which premiered at the festival in 1997 and went on to win the Academy Award for best documentary.

From a producer’s point of view, going to Park City solo can also have its advantages. ‘A festival like Sundance is really a wonderful way for a producer to acquire distribution,’ explains Roger Weisberg, president of Palisades, U.S.-based prodco Public Policy Productions. ‘A couple of times I’ve had distribution offers before going, but I’ve held off until after Sundance to make a decision. It’s worked out well for me because Sundance is such an amazing showcase that at times it will bring out a kind of bidding phenomenon that will up the ante for a producer.’

In the case of Sound and Fury (directed by Josh Aronson), a film on issues concerning deaf culture, Weisberg turned down a distribution offer before the film’s premiere at the 2000 festival. In the end, his patience paid off. Sound and Fury came away from Sundance with six distribution offers. ‘All small,’ says Weisberg, ‘but from credible distributors who were prepared to take the film out theatrically.’ The film opened in theaters on October 25, 2000, with theatrical distribution handled by Artistic License Films.

Weisberg credits the festival for creating an atmosphere in which feature docs can thrive. ‘Because they’ve identified and provided a showcase for so many great films, it’s become a place where distributors come to pick up films for distribution. I think the programmers and the organizers are creating and nurturing an environment where that kind of business can thrive – where it all of a sudden becomes possible for films like Sound and Fury to find an audience on the big screen.’


While its glitzy neighbor, the Cannes Film Festival, tempts with sun, sand and azure sea, the Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin has one very important advantage: an avid public audience. Perhaps it’s the cold winter weather that drives droves of Berliners to see the festival’s offerings each February, but more likely, it’s the renowned selection of high-quality films to be viewed there. Explains Christoph Terhechte, programmer for the Berlin Festival’s International Forum of New Cinema: ‘We are a city of four million inhabitants, and people go to see movies during the festival. That’s something you won’t have in Cannes, where you have only the buyers and the journalists and so on – but no real audience. The atmosphere here is quite different.’

In comparing the two festivals, Films Transit’s Rofekamp says that in addition to the fact that Berlin accepts docs and Cannes generally does not, Berlin is a more ‘oversee-able’ event for a smaller company like his. With several Films Transit docs screening in the festival each year, and a stand at the European Film Market (which runs concurrently and in conjunction with the festival), ‘We can play Berlin quite efficiently,’ he says.’Berlin is at the beginning of the year and it has almost the largest gathering of international film festival directors who go to find films for their events. We put all our major films in Berlin in order to create a year long track for them. I’m walking around in Berlin, I’m talking to film festival directors and making notes: ‘Melbourne wants this film, Sao Paulo wants this, etcetera.’ When we get back home, we map it all out and we see how many prints we need. I know exactly where I want the films to go.’

‘I like Berlin as a festival because it showcases the best of European, as opposed to American talent,’ says Winstar’s Katsoolis. At Sundance, she notes, most of the films are American, which she finds limiting. ‘You don’t have that problem at Berlin,’ Katsoolis continues. ‘There are always going to be some very good documentaries each year that don’t fall under that American produced banner.’

Docs can be seen in two places at the festival and in both cases, films must be world or European premieres. The panorama program screens around 11 feature-length docs (over 70-minutes) each year. The 2000 slate included films such as Errol Morris’ Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. and Ron Mann’s Grass, which opened the program – both films that exemplify the program’s interest in auteur documentaries.

The other section that welcomes non-fiction entries is the International Forum of New Cinema (‘the Forum’). The Forum is an independently run sidebar to the festival and shows about 40 films in the main program – 80 films including special and midnight screenings. Docs usually make up a significant portion of the films screened. Among those featured in last year’s program are: Une Journée d’Andrei Arsenevitch (Chris Marker, France), Cinema Verité: Defining the Moment (Peter Wintonick, Canada) and Die Konigin (Werner Schroeter, Germany).

Says Katsoolis, ‘Berlin has established itself as a really good place to find documentaries, as well as fiction. I also find a very high level of filmmaking there and they tend to be films that have a little bit of an edge to them. It’s a little more niche than mainstream, and I find that one of the best tools we can use in releasing a film theatrically, to have some kind of marketing edge to it – niche appropriate marketing.’


Toronto is the kind of festival that can make a doc really big. Taking place in September, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has launched some of the biggest doc titles over the years, including Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, one of the highest grossing docs of all time. ‘Michael Moore premiered the film in Toronto, and it was the biggest, greatest, most wonderful phenomenon,’ remembers Kelly Alexander, director of the sales office at TIFF. ‘All of a sudden there’s this documentary on Flint, Michigan, and bang! It’s the biggest film at the festival. Later on it was The Celluloid Closet, then Crumb… We’ve had these amazing world premieres of feature-length documentaries.’ Roger and Me was picked up by Warner Brothers at the festival.

Docs are screened in several sections of the festival, but the main focus for non-fiction is the Real to Reel program, an all-documentary line-up. Last year’s Real to Reel offered a widely eclectic range of films, screening 27 docs from 14 countries on subjects ranging from Danish ballet dancers (Lennart Pasborg’s Erik Bruhn: I am the Same – Only More), to chickens (Mark Lewis’ The Natural History of the Chicken), to Japanese boxers (Tashiaki Toyoda’s Unchain).

Alexander credits the doc program’s diversity, but also the festival’s program book as part of what draws people to docs at TIFF. ‘The program notes are extremely well written, so even if the subject matter isn’t specific to the individual’s interest, they go and see the film . . .

They would see a documentary as they would any other dramatic, feature-length film.’ While TIFF is a huge festival, capable of launching a feature doc into outer space, it also has appeal for smaller distribs, such as Zeitgeist Films, that look to acquire both non-fiction and fiction. ‘Toronto is really important to us,’ says Zeitgeist co-president Nancy Gerstman. ‘We have gone to it for all the years of our existence.’

The festival itself tries to help filmmakers find distribs like Zeitgeist. The OFDC (Ontario Film Development Corporation) Sales Office works at the festival to support filmmakers without distribution, to find and handle buyers for their films. Explains Alexander, ‘It’s our role in the office to say to companies – because we know their acquisitions tendencies – ‘Hey, you should check out this film because it’s something you would be interested in,’ because we know exactly what they’re buying.’ Alternately, for producers she says, ‘If you come with your film, we have people on site to help you know which companies you should be talking to seriously.’ She adds, ‘We’d advise any producer who’s looking at a potential deal not to wait until the next festival or market [to settle] – because prices tend to drop.’

Assessing a film’s potential:

While many distributors attend these festivals, most are not focused solely on acquiring docs, as is the case with Winstar, whose catalog consists mainly of fiction. Katsoolis notes that it wouldn’t hurt to alert distribs in advance that a film will be at a festival. She explains: ‘Because we’re one of the few theatrical distribs in the U.S. with documentaries, a lot of producers contact me beforehand and inform us that their film is in a festival. The producers – the team on the film – can play a major role in bringing the buyers’ attention to their films. Because most people are out there screening fiction features, and there’s so much noise out there, you have to bring specific attention to your film.’

Seventh Art’s Epstein agrees. ‘Some people call us, some send us invites, some let their sales agent do that, and some don’t. There is no one rule. If I go to Sundance, I’m going to check films out anyway, but the filmmaker sometimes doesn’t want to take chances – they want to make sure we know about their film. There’s nothing wrong with that.’

On the other hand, Gerstman says she couldn’t handle a deluge of information about films and stresses the importance of a festival’s catalog in choosing her titles.

Katsoolis says Winstar picks up at least one feature doc to distribute each year, and notes that it is crucial for them to choose carefully. ‘Unfortunately, theatrical distribution of feature docs is one of the hardest media to really make money on,’ she explains. ‘It doesn’t mean you can’t get great reviews and critical acclaim, but to make money on it is really hard, so you have to be selective. Festivals serve a great purpose in doing that pre-selection for you, and it’s good to see a film with a public audience, not just an industry audience.’

According to Rofekamp, public reaction is the best meter for judging a film’s theatrical potential, and a strong audience reception can convince a theatrical distrib to take a film. ‘That’s the key element,’ he says. ‘We try to get our films into the official selections so our clients can see them with the local audience, to see how they work. I do not believe in a distributor who selects a film for theatrical distribution just from a tape. Not in the documentary business – maybe for some fiction films. If you have to decide on the new James Bond movie and you see a tape, you can say, ‘Yes! This will work.’ But in documentaries it doesn’t work like that. [Distributors] have to see the film with an audience where something happens – where there is chemistry and magic.’

Alexander recalls a particularly emotional screening years ago at TIFF. ‘I snuck out and went to see Anne Frank Remembered,’ she recalls. ‘The director, Jon Blair, was under a lot of stress during the festival because there were so many companies approaching him and he had very little experience dealing with being so sought after. I remember going to the public screening and people were talking aloud and crying – it was like a distributor’s dream because people were responding to it so profoundly. And when that happens, when a distributor is able to witness something like that happen, they know it’s going to work, because all of those people are going to say, ‘I just saw the most extraordinary film.”

Another major selling point for distributors is if the film has a ‘hook,’ some element that they can pick up on to market the film. A good example of this is Ron Mann’s film Grass, which premiered in 1999 at TIFF. ‘There are a lot of films that are being made now – more than the market can actually absorb,’ says Mann. ‘The one thing about my films is that there’s a subculture that supports them. In this case it’s about marijuana – we knew that there were 72 million pot smokers in the United States and we knew that if they got off the couch we would have a monster hit on our hands.’

Seek professional help?

As a final point, Palisades’ Weisberg adds this thought- provoking comment: ‘A film that’s going to have a theatrical release can do itself some serious damage by getting overexposed at festivals. I think the ideal festival strategy is a strategy that is devised in conjunction with a distributor, so the distributor knows how to use the film festivals to help – instead of hurt – the film’s commercial release potential.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.